The First Wave
Author: Hollie Leanne

Chapter 2
Chapter Two

It had been two months and a day since I crawled free from the shell of my best friend’s car. 

She had died immediately, or at least I hoped she had. From the state of her body, I imagined I had been in the car for about three days. When I first laid eyes on her, maggots had already eaten her eyes and tongue, pouring out of her face in a flurry of rot, supplemented by the stench of decay that clung to my clothes for days after. 

Decay is a funny word. Not laughable, but an enigma. The word itself is ugly; implying something unpleasant, for it doesn’t sit well on the tongue when spoken. Most relate the word to death and the process of decomposition. Perhaps that is a fair assumption. But what about when the entire world in which you live is decaying around you? 

In the hours that led to my escape of the car, I accepted quickly that the world beyond was rotting in ways I could never have imagined. 

The second time I’d come to after the initial crash, when the sun was peeking through the clouds with hesitant interest towards the land below, all I could do was breathe so deeply it hurt my gut. It was as if I had held my breath for weeks, and the relief to take in the air was something beyond words. But it wasn’t like taking in the cool breeze that complemented a spring morning, but inhaling ash, earth and dust that scratched the back of my throat. 

I remember choking, my whole body shaking so hard it freed me from my questionable position in the car. But nothing prepared me for the stench coming from the front of the toppled shell of a vehicle. It was like mould, seeping through my nose and latching to the back of my throat like ivy, thick and relentless, until it travelled down into the empty, tender contents of my stomach. The smell bulged there, twisting my insides in complaint until I heaved many times, desperate to regurgitate anything that may have settled from a meal days before. 

Green bile was all that surfaced, moulding with the ash beneath my palms. I wretched one more time, so hard it hurt, before I was satisfied the initial shock of the smell had evaded me. 

I remember cutting myself as I crawled through the back window behind the driver’s seat; the glass slicing my palm deeply. Blood poured, yet I never felt the pain. The reality of my world numbed me to the bone, and any injury I had didn’t matter in that moment. I turned to the driver’s side of the car. 

Robin Brown, my best friend of six years, slumped to the roof of the car, yet her feet remained trapped as they reached for the pedals within, and her left hand still clutched at the steering wheel above her. Everything about her position was unnatural, her bones twisting in ways they shouldn’t have, her head hanging on her shoulder too loosely. Her eyes were no longer there, and her skin was so tight against her skull that I could see the movement of maggots that lived within. 

In fact, her entire body had moved as the process of death did away with her corpse. 

But I’d reached for her, touching her face so gently in my confusion, hoping against hope she would shuffle with life. Instead, the blood from my gashed palm enticed the insects further, sending them into a burst of excitement, to which I recoiled in disgust. Robin Brown, the beautiful blonde who had the music raging in her car whilst she drove, belting out lyrics that half the time she made up, accompanied by her questionable driving abilities, was being mutilated by what was a force of nature. 

She wasn’t coming back; she would never smile again, or cry, or sing. She was as dead as the world around me, a factor I was to become all too familiar with within the next few hours. 

***

I want to believe that shock got me through that first day. 

Everything was grey or pale, like something ill. The air was thick with toxins, a mist that just refused to shift. I felt that, as I walked, the smog formed into hands that tried to strangle me as I limped through the ash-coated ground that was once a road. I left footprints in my wake, giving the false impression that it was snow. 

What now looked like a wilderness was actually my hometown, Haddon. I had grown up there, a single child to a single Mum. My father had passed away a week before I was born, but my mother always assured me I was the most precious thing at such a tragic time in her life. She was a fantastic actress, my mother. Esther Morgan had fallen pregnant with me at the age of twenty-five, my father, Oliver Morgan, thirty-one, and the pair had thought that life would work in their favour. They married, ready for a life as parents. My dad had worked overtime hours, which had gotten them the little cottage in Haddon that I would come to know as home. I was told that he worked as a construction worker, and that he died in an accident on a rafter. Mum wouldn’t tell me any more than that. It hurt too much, she told me. 

She told me many times that she saw my father in me. She said I had his eyes, sharp and the bluest she had ever seen. She told me that my dad had had the sharpest features that never gave anything away, and that his eyes were the only window into what he was truly feeling. The way she spoke about him was enough to show how much she loved him, and that she never quite got over his death. Instead she fuelled all of her energy into raising me, trying her best to help me grow into a kind, smart, adventurous girl that reminded her too much of her late husband. She had done her best for me, despite money troubles, and I was grateful. Because of her, I had friends, though my closest was Robin, and I did well in school, my future prospects bright. She couldn’t do much more than any other mother. 

But she didn’t know I knew she cried herself to sleep sometimes. After seventeen years, she still wept for a man I had never known, who gave me life and gave me my family name. Yet as she grieved, I shut it out. I used to put my iPod on to its highest volume so I didn’t have to listen to her sobs, or her cries for him in the middle of the night when her depression almost consumed her. I knew that deep down she wanted me to feel the same way, to hurt in the way she did just so she wasn’t alone, yet I couldn’t. All I knew was a name and the odd photograph, but I never mourned for a man who was my dad. How could I? 

I often wondered if she resented me for that, and if she did, she was an expert in not showing it. Her face only showed a dull pain, and I knew that she wondered what life would have been like if he were with us. Sometimes I wondered if I just wasn’t enough for her, but I never let it bother me too much. 

Thinking of my mother had enabled me to forget, for a moment, my new living conditions. I had seen the body of my best friend mostly eaten. I had trudged through ash and dirt. To manoeuvre through my once friendly little town, I had to climb over cars, shells of their once working conditions. I could handle that. 

Walking through the sea of bodies was a little more difficult. The closer I got to town centre, the more there were, some beginning to pile up on top of one another. Men, women and children, all there, open eyes ghosts of their former selves. Most lay in a layer of ash, concealing the worst of their various stages in decomposition, but the smell would not let me forget the reality of their conditions. 

I’d tried not to take any notice of them, just in case I recognised some of them. I was quick to learn that ignorance was bliss as I walked through this blatant graveyard. 

But nothing would ever prepare a seventeen-year-old girl for the sheer severity of their isolation. I’d stumbled through the town and towards home, the only place I could have thought to go, but I wish I hadn’t. I would have given anything to have died in the car than face what I found at home. 

Through the haze of disorientation, shock, and fear, I remember pushing open my front door, barely noting that it was hanging loosely from its hinges. The image of a boot slamming against it flashed through my mind, but I pushed it aside. In a slow, gut wrenching blur, I’d walked down the small hall towards the kitchen, my breaths laboured and painful. Upon arriving at the archway of the kitchen, all I had to do was take a turn to my left to gaze upon the dining table set up for three. 

Mum was there, still and sprinkled with ash. Her once brown hair was grey with the stuff, her skin an unnatural white. In any other circumstance I could have convinced myself that she had fallen asleep at the head of the table facing me, her head against the wood and looking to my left. 

That was a lie. 

I remember whispering for her as I approached her, desperate for a response. It soon became clear that I wouldn’t get one. 

Once a beautiful woman, tall and all legs, was not just ugly in death. People lie when they say the ones they care about look beautiful in death. My mother, though, wasn’t just ugly. 

Half of her face was missing, blown off entirely. 

I’d screamed for her, wailed for her, just like she had for my father. 

It was in that moment that I understood the true ugliness of decay, because even though I was alive with blood pumping through my veins and my heart hammering in hurt and rage, I wanted nothing more than for the maggots to be eating me, too, just so I didn’t have to suffer like this. 

That was the day that I, Ray Morgan, began to rot within the poisons of the world around me. This wasn’t about a girl on the search for a lost family member. I had lost everything. The world was changing, and I would die before I saw the fallout.

 

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